Midcentury Modern Furniture Owes Its Popularity to the Welfare State

Praise of Danish
design mounted quickly in the U.S. through exhibitions, magazine articles, and
word-of-mouth. Taft relates how Wegner was approached by a members-only club in
Chicago in 1949 hoping to acquire 400 chairs, a number far beyond the capacity
of the Copenhagen workshop that produced them. Danish chairs became a bragging
right with devotees memorizing the shapes and mentally cataloging the available
colors of upholstery. The appetite for Scandi furniture was so voracious that
knock-offs proliferated. Genuine producers began affixing metal plates, stamps,
and brands to the underside of their furniture. One would not be surprised to
see their dinner guest surreptitiously peering under the Chieftain looking for
where the wood had been marked by a hot iron in the Danish workshop.

The heyday of artisan
furniture, however, was brief. Keeping production in Denmark, or even in
Scandinavia, did not last long. In 1951, Juhl began designing for Baker, a
furniture company from Michigan; the idea was to sell his designs to a larger
mass market by scaling-up production. Yet it was never clear how the level of
quality could be maintained outside of the Scandinavian welfare state with its
unique compromises between government, industry, and labor. In an American mass
market, it would be difficult to make elegant joinery using Fordist production
techniques (and to pay artisan wages to assembly line workers). As the scale of
production increased, it was more difficult to maintain the myth of “Nordic
naturalness” and wood forms that represented a closeness to nature. In fact,
even the teak was being supplanted by razor-thin slices of rosewood pasted onto
furniture facades. 

Meanwhile, loose
legal protections for furniture design meant that fakes and copies
proliferated. Well-heeled tourists in Copenhagen could visit the immense
furniture showroom Den Permanente near the central station to see authentic
Juhls and Wegners, but they could also saunter over to Tidens Møbler, a store
that “offered copies that looked nearly as good” at a steep markdown. “And when
exported to America, both the real thing and the copy could legitimately be
labeled ‘Made in Denmark.’” Even more alarmingly, American companies were
making fake Danish furniture of lesser quality and at lower prices. Some of
these businesses still exist today because of their successful foray into
midcentury design.

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